Amtrak supporters hopeful they can win fight with Congress

Rail supporters are hoping that the recent passage of a large water infrastructure bill can create enough momentum to boost a renewal of funding for Amtrak.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act is the first water bill the House has approved since 2008. To become law, it must still be approved by a conference committee and be signed by the president, but its prospects appear brighter after the bipartisan House vote.

It’s been five years since Congress passed legislation to authorize Amtrak funding, and it’s considered a tougher lift than the water bill.

“It’s next in line [on lawmakers' transportation agenda], but it’s going to be more contentious,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation.

The last Amtrak authorization bill was approved months before the 2008 election, when Democrats controlled Congress and Republican President George W. Bush was in the White House.

Funding for Amtrak has long been controversial with Republicans, who see it as a prime example of government waste.

“When people bring examples of government waste, fairly or not, Amtrak is often listed,” Schank said. “That’s going to be a problem with this Congress.”

Amtrak has traditionally received about $1 billion per year from Congress since its inception in 1971, and is run on a $4 billion budget.

But the train service argues it is much more efficient today.

During the government shutdown, it didn’t change its train schedules because it had generated $3 billion from ticket sales, CEO Joe Boardman said in an interview with C-SPAN.

Schank said previous Republican efforts to eliminate Amtrak funding have been derailed by opposition from GOP lawmakers who represent suburban districts where rail service is popular. The suburban GOP support, coupled with united Democratic opposition to cutting Amtrak funding, has resulted in a stalemate that has seen the company's appropriation neither go up or down.

Transportation supporters note that the rail bill traditionally includes more than just Amtrak funding, something that could bring other supporters to the bill.

The last funding bill also included provisions dealing with freight rail and technology that allows for automatic operation of rail cars called Positive Train Control (PTC).

PTC is the technology that was used on subways and commuter railways such as the Washington, D.C. Metrorail, until it was suspended after the 2009 crash of a train on Metro's Red Line. The 2008 Amtrak funding bill set a deadline of December 2015 for the wide-scale implementation of automatic train control.

Still, Schank said he was skeptical Amtrak’s arguments would win over critical Republicans like former House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who has frequently referred to Amtrak as a “Soviet-style” railroad.

It has been six years since Amtrak was reauthorized.

It also went without a specific authorizing bill from 2002 to 2008, relying solely on year-to-year line item appropriations.

American Public Transportation Association Vice President of Government Affairs Rob Healy said Congress could still provide funding for Amtrak even if they do not pass a large rail bill.

And Schank said it was possible Congress could come together quickly on a new railway bill just as they did on the water bill, though he described it as far from a sure thing.

“This has a possibility of being contentious, it just depends on whether anybody seizes on it,” he said.